A Day at the Oakland Book Festival

The clouds swirl above city hall, swept at the edges into mist. The breeze is icy, the sun warm. Smiling faces in every shade sit in grass, books in hand, heads bobbing to rappers crisscrossing the stage. I look up at the banners stretching between columns at the top of the stairs.

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I step into a crowded room and the flow of poet Will Alexander draws me in. His hand moves in circles to the rhythm of his words. I do not understand most poetry. Today is no exception. Maybe poetry is not meant to be understood. Maybe it is meant to be felt. His words sound beautiful, his beat hypnotic.

A poetry student raises his hand.

“How do you know when a poem is done?” he asks.

Matthew Zapruder answers by quoting another poet.

“I know a poem is done when both me and the poem have had an orgasm.”

I walk to the bookstore across the plaza. A choir of African-American girls sings a capella. I imagine Jack London calling for a socialist revolution at this very spot. I remember watching Barack Obama speak on these steps. I recall the humanity and energy of Occupy Oakland. The sun warms my face. I feel love for this city. I feel like I have returned to my home.

I sit on a metal folding chair and listen to authors from Oakland read from their books. Novella Carpenter tip-toes through the crowd to the front of the room. In her hand is a box of cucumber and zucchini starters she plans to give away.

“Sorry I’m late,” she says, “no bike parking around here.”

I read her memoir about starting an urban farm on an abandoned lot in west Oakland. She tells us a story about how once she was dumpster diving in Chinatown for fish guts (to feed her pigs) when a homeless man offered her a dollar for food. “Even the homeless of Oakland are openhearted,” she says.

There is also Zac Unger, a firefighter from Rockridge and Rod Campbell, an entrepreneur from west Oakland. Both wrote memoirs.

Campbell’s wife commends all three for embodying and celebrating all that is good with the town. Then she asks what can be done about all that is bad.

Unger says, “the most political decision a family can make is where they send their kids to school.”

I feel a pang of guilt.

I walk back to city hall and queue up for a reading/discussion with Ayelet Waldman and Akhil Sharma. A middle-aged Asian lady with short spiky hair and long pink bangs stands behind me.

“What a great turnout, huh?” she says. “Who knew this many people still love books?”

Sharma is one of my favorite contemporary authors. Waldman is obsessed with him too. “I’ll only read a little bit,” she says, “so we can listen to more of him.”

I admire Sharma’s sparse yet piercing style. I feel compassion for the suffering he endured. I admire his dedication to craft. He spent twelve and a half years writing his novel. He wrote seven thousand pages for what became a two hundred and twenty-four page book. When he finished the end of one draft, he opened a new document and started typing again.

Waldman can’t believe he revises this way. “I think you’ve inspired me,” she says. “I’m going to try that tomorrow.”

Sharma sits at a table in the loud and white hallway after the reading. He is hidden by a line of people waiting for a panel on gentrification. I introduce myself to him. I am nervous.

“I also wrote a novel drawn from my own experience,” I say. “I’ve written four drafts so far and I signed up to do an intensive workshop with Tom Barbash.”

I know him and Tom are friends.

“Oh, good for you,” he says. He is sincere.

“I’ve yet to try rewriting it from scratch,” I say.

“Try it, man,” he says.

I like that he calls me “man.” He makes a mountain climbing analogy I don’t really hear because I’m so nervous. Something about carving out a more direct route to the peak.

“Try it for like two months,” he says.

“I think I might,” I say. “It’s taken while, but I’m finally embracing the long game that writing a novel demands.”

At home, my wife tells me I networked.

“I’m glad you went,” she says.

“Me too,” I say. “Just seeing all those authors in the flesh and listening to them speak and interact with each other, it struck me that these are not the superhuman people I’ve idealized in my imagination. They’re all just…”

“Regular people,” she says.

“Yes, exactly. It just made the prospects of me becoming one of them seem more plausible.”

She nods.

“I have to believe in myself to make this thing work,” I say. “If I don’t believe in myself, I might as well stop.”

“Well I believe in you,” she says, “so even when you don’t believe in yourself, you’ll always have that.”

I almost start sobbing but I don’t. I make a caprese salad. I think about my short story. I am excited to get back to work.


Stopping and Starting

I spent the last ten months rewriting my book.

It took a while to bounce back from the blunt and unfiltered feedback of a professional editor but I eventually settled into an enjoyable stretch of joyful creation without attachment. The days were ends in themselves. I worked in the moment, for the sheer pleasure of stringing together words, playing with rhythm and dwelling upon the mind-blowing revelations that drove me. I blasted electronic dance music in my headphones, ran and hiked the mountain and made beautiful memories with my family. The down times came and went like always, but I didn’t resist them nor did I convince myself that they were my reality. I tried to not identify my reality with my thoughts about reality.

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I countered rainy days with blankets and hot cups of tea, deep breaths and good books and celebrated sunny days with hikes and adventures with family and friends. I wrote everyday and I didn’t share it with anyone. A few weeks ago, I reached the end of the book. Again.

I shared it with eight readers. I felt good and was happy with the book’s progression but this pause in the creative process in anticipation of feedback really disrupted the whole creating without attachment thing. The truth is I am not actually creating without attachment. I am writing this book with the intention of selling it, with the intention of it becoming the foundation of my writing career. There is a sense of urgency burning inside me, fueled by my desire to provide for my family but most of all to connect with people, to share ideas, images and moments that inspire presence, gratitude, vulnerability, love and compassion.

I received feedback from six of my readers. I heard some of the most touching and validating praise I have ever received as a writer but I also heard specific and actionable issues, deficiencies and suggestions for improvement. The praise felt good and the criticism stung but both feelings faded as they usually do into the only constant, steady truth of this life: the present moment.

My editor told me ten months ago that it often takes several years to write a good book and that mine “is particularly complex and ambitious.” I had coffee with a local fiction author a couple weeks ago who said the same thing. When I asked him if he thought it was a good idea to start querying agents, he asked me how I make my living.

“I’m really nice to my wife,” I said.

“Oh, well then it sounds like you’re in a good place,” he said. “I think you should delay it as much as possible. Agents are eager to find any possible reason to reject. They just get so many submissions.”

He said at some point I would get to a point where there is nothing more I can do with the book, but I am not at that point yet. I still have beta reader feedback coming in. The more I write and rewrite and let this story marinate in my subconscious, the more complex and nuanced it becomes. Obvious thematic connections that I never remotely contemplated are starting to manifest. My voice is ripening, embracing more humor and confidence. I have made progress as a story-teller, grounding the reader in scenes, weaving in description, dialogue, mood and theme, but there is definitely more work to be done. I don’t know if this book, as a concrete and finite entity in this world, will ever approximate my visualization of it, but I do know that, right now, there are specific and concrete things I can do to make it better.

Thankfully, the spring sun is beginning to dwell upon our patio for a few hours each morning. The creek is still babbling from the sparse winter rainfall. The mountain and ocean beckon always to humble and inspire. I will continue to write, to add layers of complexity and richness to my story, to seek the truth and try to convey it in beautiful ways. I will endeavor to do this as an end in itself, without attachment to results, until there is nothing more I can do.


Writing Wisdom from Jack London

Writing my novel has been my first real education in the narrative arts. In addition to a daily writing practice and subjecting my writing to editorial critique, I have been reading more than ever before. I have been reading classic and modern novels, studying the lives of established authors and learning the fundamentals of craft. Currently I am reading a biography of Jack London which so far has confirmed my belief that

  1. real-life experience and adventure provides the greatest fodder for fiction and
  2. persistence renders failure impossible.

By the time he established himself as one of America’s most important writers in his early twenties, London had already been the primary breadwinner for his house for a decade, as a factory-worker, oyster pirate, seal hunter, gold prospector, university student and political leader.

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He sailed the Pacific and Bering sea hunting seals for nine months. He rode the American rails with the homeless and did thirty days in jail for vagrancy. He traveled by foot through Alaskan mountains in search of Klondike gold then built a boat out of a tree he chopped down and sailed home through the deadly rapids of the Yukon river. He never finished high school but got into U.C. Berkeley. He gave speeches nightly on the Oakland city hall lawn, espousing socialist ideals and calling for revolution. He ran for mayor of Oakland.

When he set his mind to make a living as a writer, he was met with rejection after rejection. He gave up for periods at a time, but always returned to his desk and he wrote and submitted his work profusely and continued to be rejected profusely. “I’m going to stick to my writing,” he said, “and the publishers are going to accept it whether they like it or not. And some of these days they’ll be glad to take the stuff they’ve rejected and pay me a good price for it; you just wait and see.”

After ascending to the heights of the literary elite, he offered the following advice to aspiring writers:

“Don’t loaf and invite inspiration; light out after it with a club, and if you don’t get it you will nonetheless get something that looks remarkably like it. Set yourself a ‘stint’, and see that you do that ‘stint’ each day; you will have more words to your credit at the end of the year. Study the tricks of the writers who have arrived. They have mastered the tools with which you are cutting your teeth. They are doing things, and their work bears the internal evidence of how it is done. Don’t wait for some good Samaritan to tell you, but dig it out for yourself.

See that your pores are open and your digestion is good. That is, I am confident, the most important rule of all. And keep a notebook. Travel with it, sleep with it. Slap into it every stray thought that flutters up into your brain. Cheap paper is less perishable than grey matter, and lead pencil marking endures longer than memory. And work. Spell it in capital letters, WORK. WORK all the time. Find about this earth, this universe, this force and matter, and the spirit that glimmers up through force and matter from the maggot to the Godhead. And by all this I mean WORK for a philosophy of life. It does not hurt how wrong your philosophy of life may be, so long as you have one and have it well. The three great things are: GOOD HEALTH, WORK and a PHILOSOPHY OF LIFE. I may add, nay, must add, a fourth, SINCERITY. Without this, the other three are without avail. With it you may cleave to greatness and sit among the giants.”

photo by Pablo Sanchez



 

 

Why I Like Fiction

Writing in the narrative form is a brand new endeavor for me.

As a philosophy/political science/law student, newspaper columnist, trial and appellate lawyer and blogger, I am well versed in expository and persuasive writing. I enjoy this type of writing and firmly believe in the power of explanation and argument. I have witnessed it personally with the articles I’ve written and motions and briefs I’ve argued.

My words have affected the fate of human liberty. My words have ignited inspiration and debate.

Good things can be achieved with appeals to reason. Appeals to reason can change the world.

But reason can only take us so far. There are elements of the human experience that are beyond the scope of reason. The human experience itself, our very existence in the company of so much nothingness, is beyond the scope of reason. I cannot ignore this fact if I am to achieve my aim as a writer to speak truth.

Underlying every rational construction is suchness. Underlying every idea or concept about the world and our place in it is an experience rooted in place and time. This individualized experience as a human being contains more truth in its suchness than any argument or idea.

That we are here is more worthy of our attention than why we are here.

Fiction provides a complete and accurate picture of the human experience. In exposing the unfiltered ruminations of an individual consciousness, it gives the reader an emotional basis for empathy. Readers develop intimacy with that consciousness and are left with the feeling that they are not alone in this world, that everybody suffers, everybody has shortcomings, everybody has thoughts that they shouldn’t have, everybody berates themselves to some degree and to some extent everybody acknowledges their brilliance.

By anchoring the reader in an authentic human story with detail and description, abstract ideas and concepts about the meaning and purpose of life become less abstract, more in your face, more real, relevant, pressing and urgent.

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This confluence of idea and story/philosophy and experience is where magic happens and what makes fiction so powerful.

Art is definitely the most powerful force we have at our disposal. It is a collaborative, dialectical process.

I write with my voice, but my reader reads with the voice in their head.  When my voice meets the reader’s voice, a whole new voice is created and that’s pretty fucking cool.


 

Reflections on the Practice of Meditation

A little over three weeks into the Buddha Dad experiment, I am happy to report I have upheld my commitment to meditate, exercise and write five days a week. I am also happy to report that accessing the spring within me is becoming easier and more natural. Before it was like I had a cup that I had to always refill with something outside of me. Lately I’ve been tapping into the source.

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The cool thing about the source is that it’s all around and it never goes away. I am a part of it. We all are. Meditation helps me wake up to it, tune into it and unleash myself from my mind.

Running

If I identify with the chatter of my mind while I am running, I become conscious of how steep the hill is, how hot the sun is and I get weaker and want to stop. But when I stop thinking so damn much and I just tune into the rhythm of my steps on the pavement, the rhythm of my breath, I get into this fluid zone where I am just gliding across the ground like butter and it feels so natural and good.

Sitting

When I am sitting and have reached that perfectly quiet and still moment when my mind isn’t doing much and even if it is doing something I am not embroiled in it but I am just watching it do what it does, when I am effortlessly riding the wave of my breath, when I feel myself falling at every moment onto the pillow, I feel stillness penetrating my core and I feel peace.

Writing

When I am in the zone writing, I am not even looking at the screen or the keyboard and everything goes blurry but my fingers keep moving and I just let whatever wants to flow out of me to flow. I keep my fingers moving because my mind is always eager to tell me that what I am writing is unoriginal and dumb and not worth anybody’s time. Then of course there is the the call for distraction, the pull to stop what I am doing and just absorb some other bullshit in an unconscious state of mind.

The cool thing about writing is that it takes the loud and obnoxious story teller in my mind who stands at its pulpit and won’t shut the fuck up about how shitty a person I am and it reduces that motherfucker to letters on a page. Tiny little thoughts and statements that demonstrate by their manifestation that they are not me. The person that is writing these things, observing these things is me. That me has no running commentary. It is just a blank slate of awareness.

My mind is always there. It will never go away. But I am reaching moments momentarily where it’s not so damn loud and it feels pretty good.

Sometimes meditation is torture, but it is only torture when I identify with my mind.

When the narrative of my ego is screaming the loudest and I am paying attention to it, everything is torture. But when I am in the moment and paying attention to sounds and rhythms and other sensory things that ground me to the reality that I am here, right now, then all is good.

Well, all is.

And I happen to think that is-ness is good.



 

The Writer in the Woods

“I’ll tell you what hermits realize. If you go off into a far, far forest and get very quiet, you’ll come to understand that you’re connected with everything.” – Alan Watts

I watched a documentary last week about J.D. Salinger, the reclusive genius behind The Catcher in the Rye. Salinger might be the most famous author in American history yet this was the only novel he ever published. It is is a book that has inspired millions around the world, one that gave voice to a sentiment felt by many but spoken by few, a cathartic experience for young people trying to find their way in the world and a sobering look in the mirror for those already entrenched in the grind of phoniness.

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sign posted in front of Salinger's NH house | photo by Edmund Fountain/Valley News

 

I first read The Catcher in the Rye while I was an unemployed law school graduate looking for work anywhere I could find it because I had student loans and bar loans and there were way more lawyers than there were law jobs. I read it and I enjoyed it but then I poured everything I had into finding this elusive, magical job, securing my chain to the conveyer belt that was moving forward, progressing aggressively toward advancement and elevation so that maybe one day, if  I worked hard enough, I could actually enjoy my life for a few years before I died.

Having unclipped myself from this conveyer belt a couple years ago to raise my kids and write a book, I was inspired by Salinger’s ambition and persistence, two qualities essential to succeeding as a writer and really at anything. I was astounded by the number of rejections he received from The New Yorker before one of his short stories was finally accepted. I was impressed by his dedication to the craft of writing itself, the pursuit and creation of truthful characters and settings and stories that people can identify with and have empathy and compassion for.

I was intrigued by his rejection of fame.

As a new and unknown writer, I often daydream about fame and recognition and look forward to that day that I can enjoy that private fist bump, that “yes! I fucking did it!” feeling that accompanies some external recognition that what I am doing is in fact significant and worthwhile and valued. I imagine delivering the “I told you sos” to all the haters and doubters in spirited and colorful ways. I visualize accepting an award and looking in the camera with tears streaming down my face and saying “dreams really do come true.” I daydream about it and know I will find some ego-level satisfaction from success in the form of fame and fortune, but this is not why I write.

I write to speak truth.

Salinger holed himself up in his writing studio for decades meditating and churning out stories and novels and ruminations on Buddhism and Vedanta. When he finished a manuscript he just put it in his safe. He did not publish anything. He could have typed the word apple 90,000 times and it would have been a bestseller the next day. He wrote diligently and profusely and published nothing for forty-five years and then he died.

These works will be published according to his trust in a staggered fashion beginning in 2015 and for the next several decades. He was reportedly moved by the notion advanced in the Bhagavad-GitaThis is something I believe. In fact, I tweeted it over a year ago.

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Salinger didn’t tweet it, he lived it. Unlike him, I have yet to write a world-changing, generation defining novel that can bankroll me for the rest of my life. Well maybe I have, but I’m working on it still. But seeing this legend, this icon, this superstar reach the pinnacle of writing success then abandon it and write only for the sake of writing, without attachment, knowing that it will only touch the souls of readers when he was removed from the situation as an ego, as an anointed and unwilling spokesperson for a generation, this was inspiring to me.

It was a powerful illustration of why we ought to create art.

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The Beginning of the Rest of the Story

Take a deep breath and tell us your deepest, darkest secret, so we can wipe our brow and know that we’re not alone.” – Alan Watts

Welcome to the first post on this blog. I formed the serious intention a couple years ago to stop practicing law and focus my efforts during the time I was not taking care of my two small children on developing myself as a writer.

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photo by Thomas Nugent

I started a blog called Place{Thought}Story with my friend and we wrote and edited several well received pieces that did exactly what I wanted them to do in the world. I received more than enough affirmation from the universe that writing was in fact my true calling and that powerful, game-changing results stem from the radical act of speaking truth.

I realized during the course of writing articles and essays for P{t}S that they were part of a larger narrative of my personal coming of age, my spiritual maturation and that the best possible format for this type of story was a book.

So for the last year and a half I have not shared my writing with the world and have done my work quietly and privately, struggling and suffering alone at my desk or in my chair in the woods with the hopes that one one day when my message is crystallized to me, I can then share it with the world and thereby make it a better place. And by that I mean a world filled with more presence, more consciousness, more gratitude, more authenticity, more love, more creation, less consumption, less pretense, less ego, less attachment, less suffering.

I want all these things for myself and I want all these things for the world and so I intend to create it, to manifest it, to write it. I made the decision to write a coming of age story before I was even close to coming of age with the hopes that in writing the story that I want for my life, I would make it so. After all, our lives are our greatest creative act and our intention is what creates our reality.

I finally reached a point a few weeks ago where I was ready to share my book with a few colleagues and friends – artists and writers – to get an idea of how it affected people whose opinions I value, people who occupy themselves with some of the same sort of ideas and practices that I am trying to advance with my book. I also knew I needed some unfiltered, candid editorial feedback because this is my first book and really my first serious foray into creative writing. I never took creative writing in college and never even wrote a short story, let alone a novel/memoir.

So I reached out to a professional editor that was referred to me by my wife’s former co-worker. He’s been described as a legend in the publishing industry and has edited Hunter S. Thompson, Toni Morrison, Tom Robbins and many other award-winning and best-selling authors. My intent was to simply get an idea as to what kind of money I would have to spend for the services of someone with this kind of track record.

I wrote him an e-mail and told him what my book was about. He wrote me back and said it sounded interesting. He told me to send him the entire manuscript that he would read free of charge then let me know if he thinks we’d be a good fit. So without thinking about it too much I sent over the same draft I had shared with my colleagues and then promptly lamented my haste when I discovered a spelling error on the second page.

He wrote me back a few days later telling me that he just finished reading my book with tears in his eyes. He said he was impressed with the ambitious intentions of the book, its struggle with profound spiritual and philosophical issues and the potential denouement for the characters I created. He said what I’ve done so far has resonated with him professionally and personally.

Reading those words was probably the greatest moment I’ve had thus far in this process and I’ve read them so many times I was able to just write them verbatim from memory.

But then of course he said that the book needs a complete rewrite. He said I need to reconsider where the reader enters the narrative arc and how said arc unfolds. He said the characters need more development, the voice needs tightening and refining and several scenes need to be added and others deleted entirely.

I met with him in Berkeley and the first thing he told me was that writing a good book is incredibly hard and that even the most seasoned best-selling authors sometimes take five or six years to write a book. My book, he said, was particularly complex and ambitious.

He said a writer needs two things to succeed.

1) conviction (in the importance of what you want to say) and

2) humility.

“Oh you’re just getting started,” he said when I told him I’ve been at it for a year and a half.

Hearing this broke my heart.

As much as I tell myself in affirmations to renounce attachment, I want to make writing my career and the thought that I may have years ahead of me before completing this book was a slap in the face from which I am still recovering.

But his feedback was golden. He left me with a structural blueprint to use moving forward in revision and I know exactly what needs to be done to maximize the potential impact and appeal of this book.

“Don’t rush it,” he said as I thanked him and shook his hand.

The last thing I want to do is rush it. I do not want to spend hours setting up a glorious fireworks show and have only half of the fireworks go off. I want to blow people’s minds. I want to fuck people up. When people finish reading my book, I want them sobbing in recognition of the raw beauty and frailty of our shared humanity, inspired to move forward in their lives in a more present, conscious, authentic and creative way. And that is just going to take some more time.

That doesn’t mean I have to wallow in solitary confinement in the meantime. I have suffered enough for my art and I know community will help me enjoy it more. Real and authentic community, online and in everyday life, anchored by humility, vulnerability and the heart-warming and empowering realization that we are not alone.

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